Thursday, March 29, 2007

City and Desert

February 25

i just returned to civilization (aka Jerusalem) after 3 days in the desert. its been quite a week--last sunday my phone got crunched, and then i spent a delightful 24 hours with ezra's fantastic sister gia. she and her family are living in an artist village called ein hod, just south of Haifa on the Mediterranean coast. It was started by Dadaists 50 years ago, and you have to be an artist to be a member ( anyone can rent a house there). Its is very cute, there's interesting sculpture all around and a beautiful view of the sea. Gia totally pampered me. We ate decadent and delicious food, picked through flea market leftovers in the rain, drove through the gorgeous carmel mountains and walked on the beach. And of course gabbed our heads off non-stop!

from ein hod, i took the train to tel aviv and stayed in a hostel next to the sea, enjoying the luxury of doing my laundry, checking my email, and taking hot showers, all in the same place!!! I also frequented a lovely vegan diner, sat on the beach for hours, and got a new cell phone.

after a brief stop in Jerusalem (dahlia's house has become my home base), I traveled south on Thursday to mitzpah ramon, a small city in northern tip of the negev desert. it borders a giant canyon, called makhtesh ramon (for some reason, its translated as a crater, but its definitely concave). i stayed at the “desert eco-lodge”, a place just outside of town with little straw bale huts overlooking the canyon. It was utterly serene and silent, i think the quietest place i've ever been. the desert is very intense b/c the landscape is very beautiful and also very very still--nothing moves or appears to be living. i was so happy to move into my little straw bale hut, my first little home since the ulpan. there was little food to be found, especially on Shabbat, so Friday morning i bought some dried fruit and nuts, bread and hummus and chocolate, and lived off of that for the next few days. the "desert eco-lodge" where i stayed was right next to the desert sculpture garden, giant stoic rock sculptures that blended into the landscape. i took several hikes, trudging through the silent desert feeling tiny and insignificant, and spent the evenings reading in my little hut. the last night, i went to bed at 8 30, (having finished my book).

the desert was very intense and very beautiful, and i have to say that by the end of that intense solitude, i was starting to lose my mind a bit. (there were some other folks staying there, but the longest conversation that i had the whole time was maybe 3 minutes). All in all, I’m starting to feel worn down (and/or malnourished?). Travel on the weekends is always quite crazy; at least half of the bus passengers are soldiers, generally with their giant guns. you pretty much have to shove your way onto the bus in order to ensure a seat. there's no order of course, and the bus driver just lets the bus fill up to capacity, including standing room in the aisles. The solitary travel life is starting to wear on me and loneliness is moving in…..

Tzfat, take one

February 19

Well, this trip has been an exercise in extremes (i think i've been sort of omitting the extreme challenges when writing these messages, but i have to say that this trip has presented me with some of the biggest challenges I’ve ever faced). the latest adventure is that a bus ran over my cell phone as i was about to leave tzfat, crushing with it tons of contact info and my one easy reliable way of connecting and planning the pouring rain, i attempted not to freak out as i realized i didn't have contact info for ezra's sister, who was going to pick me up in haifa, my next stop. but all is well now, and this post really needs to be about the amazing, magical, mystical experiences i had in zfat last week.

Sunday I made my way to this 3000 year old city, perched on top of israel's 3rd highest mountain peak. The landscape it is breathtakingly gorgeous, mountains and valleys on all sides. On a clear day you can see to the Kinneret (Gallilee). there is a sort of main street where you can drive, but most of the city is winding cobblestone, alleys and very old stone buildings with very few cars. it looks out over a stunning valley and mountains to the west (amazing sunsets!). I stayed at Ascent, the Chabad run hostel at the top of the hill (chabad is a branch of chassidism that loves to recruit non-observant jews into the fold). They run a school there too, and give a10 shekel rebate for each class on Judaism attended.

pretty much upon arrival, bizarre, serendipitous and wonderful things started happening. i had one contact in town, a friend of a friend who taught at elat chayyim (the Jewish spiritual retreat center in upstate ny). he is a kabalistic artist and his wife teaches yoga.

That night in class (hey, 10 shekels is 10 shekels...) i "ran into" coco, a woman i worked with 6 years ago at elat chayyim,. we hadn't seen each other in years, and both our jaws dropped to the ground. she is a sweet, warm, kind, generous, angel of a woman and it was wonderful to see her. The class itself turned out to be mildly traumatic-- taught by a 72 year old ravingly fanatical right wing torah scribe and self professed cowboy from colorado.

But afterward, coco invited me over for tea at place. She took me in and fed me brown rice and vegatables (i'd eaten only falafal all day in my attempt to economize), and we shared our stories of the past 5 years. her new friend irene was there too, a 55 year old orthodox raised--long time atheist jewishly questioning woman. we talked about our relationships to judaism and our life paths and journeys until nearly midnight. the next morning, i went to miryam's yoga class. it was at the center for healthy living, and it turned out that i'd emailed with the guy that runs the center from his home. he invited me to join their band for their purim schpeil in early march.

when i returned to ascent, another rabbi that i didn't know asked if i was going to take his class that night. i was starting to feel a bit claustrophobic, but his open, direct gaze and kind face were hard to refuse. also, i'd heard good things about him (he started Ascent and is the director). I decided to give it a shot.

we started around 9pm, and Rabbi Leider launched into an obscure kabbalistic text about the 5 spiritual levels of visiting the grave of a tzaddik (righteous/holy man). then, to give the context for this teaching, he started to give a "brief" over view and history of kabbalah (mystical judaism). i was in heaven. this man is brilliant, learned, kind, funny, inquisitive, and very sensitive. he challenged us with good questions, (the class was just me and another jewishly questioning american woman in her mid 20s), and was very aware of our level of engagement. he drew from a full range of texts and spoke with passion and deep understanding. the hours flew by and somehow it was suddenly midnight, and my head was aching from paying such intense and close attention for so long. sensing our interest and despite his obviously insanely busy schedule, he offered to find a bit of time the next day to continue learning the text with us (the history and overview and various fascinating tangents, questions, and stories had inevitably sucked up most of the time so that we had barely gotten into the actual text that he had wanted to study). The second class was just as satisfying as the first.

that night i went to yoga class again, and stayed after for the first rehearsal of "the golems", the purim band. we played songs like "i shot mashiach (messiah)" (to the tune of i shot the sheriff), and "we're jammin/" (as in, Just As Much Moshiach, like we are all just as much moshiach.). the plot of the play is hilarious, there's an american idol-esque contest to decide who should be the next moshiach. in between classes, i wandered through tsfat's enchanting old city and artist quarter, visiting synagogues and getting lost.

zfat felt familiar and easy, and immediately comfortable. i had tapped into this really warm and wonderful community of (mostly american) hippies, artists, musicians, and kabbalists who were welcoming and generous. they reminded me alot of my parents' friends. everything just flowed easily, and before i knew it, someone had offered me to house/pet sit in their giant, beautiful home for three weeks in march. although i took a few days to really think about and weigh the decision, it felt pretty easy and organic to say yes.

tsfat has this crazy energy that everyone is always commenting on, where things just happen in this amazing flow. also, the spiritual energy there is very intense and quite palpable. its very compelling to me, and i feel very drawn to being there in the future sometime, in some way. for now though, i'm happy with three weeks in this beautiful wood paneled house with a giant bathtub, massage chair, and lemon tree out back.

Rosh Pina and Food

Today we walked around Rosh Pina, a 125 year old village settled by a group of romanians about 10 min. from the kibbutz. Many of the buildings remain from that time and/or are restored, the roads are cobblestone and it has a very old feeling to it. in the surrounding hills, you can see burnt trees hit by ketusha rockets in the (most recent) lebanon war. (ok, and of course its stunningly beautiful!).

staying with yifat's family was fun and it was nice to be fed within an inch of my life after the relative undernourishment of the previous week (i've been living on falafel and persimmons), and they were very kind and generous to me. sara (the mamale) spent the entire day saturday cooking up a giant feast for dinner!! we had: quiche, pizza (from scratch), fried eggplant, potatoes w/onion, rice, tuna salad, vegatable stir fry, and some more things i'm forgetting. and home made cream puffs for desert! it was all amazingly delicious.

sara said she'd like to visit twin oaks on her trip to the us this summer, and she even gave me her "let's go israel" book, which was huge relief now that i'm travelling on my own. by sunday, however, i felt a bit over-mameled (not to mention fat) and ready to strike out on my own. now i'm in the mystical kabbalistic city of tsfat……..more to come!

Kfar Hanasi

February 13

on Friday, i braved a packed bus up to the north to stay with a friend of a friend at kibbutz kfar hanasi. the kibbutz is near the town of Rosh Pina, in the Galilee area. the whole north is really beautiful and the kibbutz is on a hill overlooking the Golan heights, the Jordan river, and snowcapped mt. hermon, the highest peak in Israel. Needless to say, it was breathtakingly gorgeous.

kfar hanasi was started over 50 years ago by mostly british and other english speaking folks involved in habonim, the Zionist socialist youth movement. they have the usual kibbutz type industries; a large factory that makes metal fittings, some agriculture and chickens, other stuff that I’m not remembering. there are about 600 people living there now, 300 are members and the others are renting or in the army etc. the mother of my new friend had been there for a long time (30 years?), she teaches Hebrew and Yiddish and came there originally b/c she was very interested in socialism.

over the years, kfar hanasi, like the majority of kibbutzim, has had financial difficulties and as a result has become almost entirely decentralized. the dining hall used to serve 3 meals a day, now it does maybe one. most radically, income is no longer egalitarian: when you get your wages (either from working on the kibbutz or increasingly common, off the kibbutz), the money goes through the kibbutz first and a graduated percentage (like income tax) is taken off to pay for basic upkeep and services. the rest you keep! even kibbutz jobs are compensated differently now, you make a lot more if you're a manager than if you're cleaning toilets. my twin oakian ears were quite shocked to hear this!

i asked sara (the mamale) what this meant for kfar hanasi's status as a kibbutz, in the eyes of the Israeli government. she said that in the last year or so, the gov't has invented a new category of kibbutz, the "new" kibbutz. there are 270 kibbutzim all together, and about two thirds belong to this new, totally decentralized category of kibbutz. The other third are either rich enough to provide for the middle aged desires of their members or are still struggling through the (at times painful and arduous) process of decentralizing. the "new kibbutzim" basically function as progressive, communally minded villages with some shared resources.

friday night, sarah’s kids took me to the local pub (its on the kibbutz, open friday nights only). apparently its usually a quiet social setting, people chatting, drinking beer etc. mostly from the kibbutz. but that night it was PACKED with young folks in the army who were staying at various kibbutzim in the area. it was quite a scene.


February 13

after leaving kibbutz beerot yithak, i spent a very refreshingly secular weekend in jerusalem with my friend dahlia and her husband menny. they are very sweet, hippy, secular folks (dahlia and I met at elat chayyim, the Jewish retreat center in 2001).

dahlia is 7 months pregnant! and works for a social service agency studying poverty in israel, menny is a sweet and dorky math grad student at hebrew u, he's very musically inclined and has a stuffed turtle named tsavvy (tsav is Hebrew for turtle). we spent the weekend cooking yummy food and hanging out with the near continuous stream of friends who stopped. it was nice to chill and play music, sing, talk, read, and just kick a pleasant and relaxing environment. And, it was nice to see a side of Israeli culture that i could relate to more directly.

after the weekend i spent several relatively uneventful days back in tel aviv with gershon. i saw his klezmer band play again, this time a more formal show in the performance space at a bar. it definitely felt a bit weird, this music is so essentially jewish but it had the feel of some far away culture, like we were watching Australian aboriginal music or something. on Tuesday I met up with the ulpan again for a guided tour of the Diaspora museum. the message that I took away loud and clear was that the jews have been persecuted constantly and consistently over the years, and we all have a duty to help build the land of Israel. yee haw. i did enjoy having more in-depth discussions about the history, though I was left with a strong desire to understand Jewish history in the context of all other groups of people that have been persecuted over the years...

afterward we went to this GIANT mall downtown, and were set loose with the task of compiling a list of reasons why this mall was a jewish mall. (!!)

i left my ulpan friends after that and spent the rest of the week back in Jerusalem, mostly wandering around in the old city getting lost in the maze of alleys and winding little streets. its stunningly beautiful and nearly impossible to navigate, so wandering and getting lost is pretty much unavoidable. there’s a huge Arab shook (open market) in the middle, very hectic w/ folk selling everything from baklava to scarves to whole pigs. i managed to get lost in the arab quarter, and kept accidentally wandering into people's private home areas. one guy finally invited me in for coffee. his wife and new baby were inside watching a bizarre Jordanian "sitcom"/drama show, which was fascinating—it featured fully religious garb etc. but was also very dramatic. we had a hard time communicating between my horrible Hebrew and total lack of Arabic...but they gave me coffee and offered me cigarettes, makeup, and read hair dye (?!) . we sort of "chatted" for a while, the baby was absolutely adorable and I got to hold him for a while. The couple was very sweet and invited me back anytime.

i also went on the rooftop of one of the hostels, and its was quite spectacular to look out over the whole city and hear the Muslim call to prayer echoing from all sides, drinking sweet mint tea from the shook.